‘We have not seen this horror for 10 years’: Sri Lanka reels after Easter bombings

At least 207 are dead and 450 others injured following attacks on churches and hotels

A relative of a victim of the explosion at St Anthony’s Shrine reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

A relative of a victim of the explosion at St Anthony’s Shrine reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

 

As Christians in Sri Lanka gathered on Sunday morning to celebrate Easter Mass, the culmination of Holy Week, powerful explosions ripped through three churches packed with worshippers, leaving hundreds of victims amid a havoc of splintered and blood-spattered pews.

In what the police said were co-ordinated terrorist attacks carried out by a single group, bombers also struck three five-star hotels popular with tourists. At least 207 people were killed and 450 others injured, a police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera, said.

News of the bombings, the largest targeted attack on South Asian Christians in recent memory, rippled out all Easter morning, interrupting celebrations across the world. Pope Francis, after celebrating Mass in St Peter’s Square, said the attacks had “brought mourning and sorrow” on the most important of Christian holidays.

Sri Lanka emerged a decade ago from a bloody, 26-year civil war, during which Tamil guerrillas pioneered large-scale use of suicide bombing. Effective use of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka was then widely studied and copied in the Middle East.

“It has been 10 years since we last saw this kind of horror,” said Hemasiri Fernando, the country’s defence secretary.

Images from the bombing sites showed bloodied and shattered pews and victims lying on the floors of houses of worship. The walls and windows of the targeted hotels were blown out.

The attacks targeted worshippers gathering for Mass at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo; St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, about 32km north of Colombo, and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa, officials said.

The attacks also targeted high-end hotels in the capital, including the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury.

Mangala Samaraweera, the Sri Lankan finance minister, called the explosions “a well-co-ordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy”.

Witness account

One witness, Sarita Marlou, who was at the Shangri-La hotel, wrote in a Facebook post that one blast occurred at 8.57am in the Table One restaurant on the third floor, where people had gathered to dine.

“Felt the blast all the way up to the 17th floor where we were sleeping,” she wrote. “Few minutes later, we were asked to evacuate the hotel. While running down the stairs, saw a lot of blood on the floor but we were still clueless as to what really happened.”

Marlou posted that the guests had been stuck outside for more than two hours before being ushered back inside as the sun got hot. But they still were not cleared to go back to their rooms, she wrote.

NA Sumanapala, a shopkeeper near St Anthony’s Shrine who said he had run inside the church to help after the attack, said: “It was a river of blood. Ash was falling like snow.”

Ruwan Wijewardene, the defence minister, said that seven people had been arrested in connection with the attacks. The government also said that suicide bombers had set off the explosions.

“We believe these were co-ordinated attacks, and one group was behind them,” Mr Wijewardene said. He urged the news media not to report the names of the attackers or to make them “martyrs”.

Three officers were killed while hunting for the attackers at a housing complex in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda, officials said. Police said they had found explosives inside one of the apartments and that a firefight had broken out between officers and the suspects.

One suspect detonated explosives during questioning by police inside a home in the suburb. Officials at the site said they believed the attacks had been planned there. As authorities questioned members of the group, another suspect escaped, and was being sought by a circling helicopter.

Mr Wijewardene said that police units had been put on alert a week ago by the force’s chief inspector, Pujith Jayasundara, about potential attacks on churches. It was unclear what steps had been taken to safeguard against attacks.

Social media blocked

Sri Lankan officials also temporarily blocked several social media networks, including Facebook and Instagram. Users also reported being unable to access the messaging services WhatsApp and Viber. The government set a nationwide curfew from 6pm Sunday to 6am Monday.

Though Sunday’s attacks have no known link to social media, Sri Lanka has a troubled history with racial violence incited on the platforms. Its ban was an extraordinary step that reflects growing global concerns about social media.

Last year, Sri Lanka briefly blocked social networks after viral misinformation and calls to anti-Muslim violence, circulating largely on Facebook, were blamed for a wave of riots and lynchings. Government officials had repeatedly warned Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, that the posts could lead to violence. Though the company promised to hire more moderators and improve communication, the episode left officials wary of the social media giant.

Other countries, such as India, have periodically blocked social media during spasms of violence linked to the platforms. While researchers have blamed Facebook for inciting racist attacks in a range of countries, including Germany, the risk is thought to be higher in places where trust in the local authorities is lower and histories of communal violence are more recent.

The growing concerns threaten Facebook’s long-term business model, which relies on near-constant growth in developing markets, particularly in Asia.

Sri Lanka’s ban on social media on Sunday represented an escalation in the global backlash against social media companies, because the move appeared to be pre-emptive. Rather than trusting in Facebook and other companies to police their networks for hate speech or incitement that could arise as a result of Sunday’s attacks, the government was treating the platforms as too dangerous to remain online.

The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, called for people not to believe false information circulating online. The Sri Lanka Red Cross also said in a tweet that rumours online that its building had been attacked were false.

Civil war

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 10 years ago, but memories of urban carnage are still fresh, particularly for residents of the capital. During the conflict, brutal bombings of airports, bus stations, banks, cafes, and hotels were not uncommon.

The Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels targeted on Sunday, had been blown up before, in 1984, when it was called the Hotel Lanka Oberoi.

The Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka traces its roots to the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 1500s and the subsequent influence of Portuguese, Dutch and Irish missionaries. Sri Lankan Catholics are a significant minority, accounting for roughly 6 per cent of the population and centred largely in the Colombo-Negombo area.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II travelled to Sri Lanka to canonise Joseph Vaz, an Indian-born priest and missionary. Thousands of people greeted the pope’s motorcade as it travelled from the airport in Negombo to Colombo.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that given Sri Lanka’s long history of ethnic and religious violence, including the nearly three-decade civil war that only ended in 2009, it was premature to jump to conclusions about whether radicalised Muslims might have played a role in the assaults.

The scale of the attacks and the death toll on Sunday were unprecedented, even by Sri Lanka’s bloody standards, Ms Ganguly said. “In three decades of war, this scale of attack has never happened,” she said. “In terms of serious, religion-based violence, we haven’t really seen that.”

As Sri Lankan news media reported that 35 foreigners were among the dead, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said in a statement that 25 unidentified bodies were believed to be foreign citizens, and that nine other foreigners were missing.

Three Britons, three citizens of India, two people holding joint US and British citizenship, two Turkish citizens and a Portuguese citizen were among the dead, the foreign ministry said.

The Dutch foreign minister, Stef Blok, said that one Dutch citizen had died, and the Turkish ambassador to Sri Lanka, Tunca Ozcuhadar, told the news channel TRT World that two Turkish engineers were among those killed.

Chinese citizens were among the dead, too, according to news reports.

Nineteen foreigners were receiving treatment for injuries at the national hospital in Colombo, the foreign ministry said.

World reaction

Pope Francis, after celebrating Easter Mass in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, said: “I want to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, struck while it was gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence.”

He added: “I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed.”

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called the blasts “horrific” in a post on Twitter. “There is no place for such barbarism in our region,” he wrote. India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and shares many cultural and economic ties with the island nation.

Prime minister Imran Khan of Pakistan said his country “stands in complete solidarity with Sri Lanka in their hour of grief”.

Prime minister Theresa May of Britain, president Emmanuel Macron of France and chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were among the European leaders to express their grief. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that he had received news of the bombings “with horror and sadness”.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey also wrote on Twitter that the attacks had been “an assault on all of humanity”.

President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the US stood ready to help, though the tweet inflated the number of victims in a typo. “Heartfelt condolences from the people of the United States to the people of Sri Lanka on the horrible terrorist attacks on churches and hotels,” he wrote, adding that the explosions had “killed at least 138 million people and badly injured 600 more”. – New York Times